With kids back at elementary school, parents have to decide, once again, what to pack the little gaffers for lunch. It's important, because the foods you choose will provide the energy and nutrients children need to make it through a busy day in and out of the classroom. Here are some things to consider:
FOLLOW FOOD GUIDE
Use Canada's Food Guide to help you create school lunches. (Health Canada's website is at hc-sc.gc.ca). Most dietitians I've spoken to suggest including choices from at least three of the four food groups, including whole-grain products; fruits and vegetables; protein (meats, fish, chicken, beans and alternatives); and dairy products and alternatives. If time allows, make a list of items in each group that your child currently eats, build upon it over time, and use that list to guide you on what to pack in their lunch.
MAKE INTERESTING, KID-FRIENDLY MEALS
Store foods in easy-toopen containers and pack them in a way that maintains their quality. For example, don't pack moist foods with items that are meant to stay dry. Add variation to sandwiches by switching up the baked goods used as the base. Consider using mini-bagels, pita pockets, tortilla wrappers and mini buns. To encourage fruit and vegetable consumption, make them easy to eat by choosing those that are bite-size, or by cutting them into bite-sized pieces. If packing whole fruit, such as an apple, opt for smaller ones, not giant ones that would be more suited for an adult.
PACK COLOURFUL FOOD
Food companies use bright-coloured foods to attract children to products that might be loaded with sugar, bad fats and artificial colouring, so why don't you? Of course, I'm talking about healthy, fresh foods that have visual and taste appeal, such as berries, golden plums, purple grapes, cherry tomatoes, orange bell peppers and rich-green snap peas. Some parents avoid buying some of these items because they deem them too expensive, but won't hesitate to purchase colourfully packaged processed food that's on sale. Evaluate the true cost of both and you'll likely find that fresh produce is the best value, particularly nutrition-wise.
Try to read the nutrient fact box on the convenience items you buy for lunches, such as single-serving yogurts, cheese strings, granola bars, fruit leather and snack items. It can be shocking how much sodium, fat and sugar some of these products contain. The only way to determine that is to read the label.
LEAD BY EXAMPLE
If you eat healthfully - at least most of the time - there's a better chance your child will, too. You are the boss, but letting the child make some decisions about what goes into the lunch box increases the chance that the lunch will be happily consumed. And be patient if your child is a fussy eater. Regularly offer new foods and don't freak out if the kid rejects them.
It can take numerous attempts to get that fussy eater to try something new, but most eventually will. Jump for joy when they do!
If you're stuck for lunch ideas, check out the latest food and family magazines, websites and kid-friendly cookbooks for inspiration.
In today's column, you'll find four recipe ideas you can add to your repertoire. Supplement, where needed, with the items noted in Canada's Food Guide.
When packing the meal, use quality containers, vessels and lunch kits and remember this simple foodsafety rule: Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot.
SALMON SALAD SLIDERS WITH CUCUMBER
The mini hamburger (slider) buns used in this recipe are sold at some supermarkets. Their small size makes them easy and fun for kids to eat. Spreading each bun with a little butter creates a barrier between the salmon salad filling and the bun, which helps keep the latter from becoming overly soft before the slider is eaten.
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: None
Makes: 3 servings (2 sliders each)
1 (213-gram) can sockeye salmon, drained well
2 to 3 Tbsp light or regular mayonnaise
1/4 cup finely chopped celery
1 green onion, thinly sliced (optional)
- lemon juice and freshly ground
black pepper to taste
- butter, softened, to taste
6 mini hamburger (slider) buns
6 small lettuce leaves
6 to 12 thin slices English cucumber
Combine the first five ingredients in a bowl.
Spread the cut side of each bun with butter. Set a piece of the lettuce on each bottom bun. Divide and top with the salmon salad and cucumber slices. Set on top buns. Wrap and chill sliders until ready to pack for lunch.
RED PEPPER HUMMUS WITH VEGETABLES, CRACKERS AND CHEESE
I'm not giving exact amounts on items to include in this lunch - that's based on the age of your child and appetite. The hummus recipe yields 2 cups, so pack what you'll need for the lunch(es), and keep the rest in a tight-sealing container in the refrigerator. It will keep for a few days.
Adults will also enjoy this hummus.
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: None
1 (19 oz/540 mL) can chickpeas, drained well, rinsed in cold water, and drained well again
1 large roasted red pepper, coarsely chopped (see Note)
1/4 cup olive oil
3 Tbsp tahini (see Note)
2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice, or to taste
1 garlic clove, coarsely chopped (optional)
1 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp dried oregano
- salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- raw vegetables, to taste, such as cucumber slices, carrot sticks, snap peas, cherry tomatoes, celery sticks and/or broccoli florets
- grapes or other fruit, to taste
- small sticks or slices mozzarella, havarti or other cheese, to taste
- whole-grain crackers, to taste
Place the first eight ingredients in a food processor and pulse until smooth. Season the hummus with salt and pepper. Transfer to a tight-sealing container and refrigerate until needed. To make the lunch, place the hummus, vegetables, grapes or other fruit and crackers in separate small containers or arrange in a compartmented container.
Note: The roasted red pepper and tahini (sesame seed paste) used in this recipe are available in jars at most supermarkets.
QUICK CHILI WITH CHEESE AND WHOLEGRAIN TORTILLA CHIPS
This tasty chili is easy to make and requires just five ingredients. You can make it the day before needed and reheat it.
Preparation time: 5 minutes Cooking time: About 25 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 servings (depending on child's age and appetite)
3/4 lb. extra-lean ground beef
1 (415-ml) jar mild tomato salsa (see Note)
1 cup low sodium beef stock
1 (14 oz.) can red kidney beans, drained well, rinsed in cold water and drained well again
2 tsp brown sugar
- grated cheddar or other cheese, to taste
- whole grain tortilla chips, to taste
Set a pot over medium heat. Add the beef and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is entirely cooked through and crumbly. Drain away the excess liquid. Mix in the salsa, stock, beans and brown sugar. Bring to a simmer. Simmer the chili, uncovered, 15 minutes, or until thick and tasty. Taste chili and season with salt and pepper, if needed, and it's ready. Serve chili with grated cheese and tortilla chips.
Note: You can use any brand of tomato salsa to make the chili, but the one I successfully used when testing the recipe was Newman's Own.
WHOLE-WHEAT MACARONI SALAD WITH HAM, CHEESE AND VEGETABLES
This comfort food salad and lunch item contains fibre, protein, calcium and a colourful mix of vegetables. The salad can be made the night before needed.
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: About 8 minutes
Makes: About 3 to 4 (1 to 1 1/3 cup) servings
3/4 cup whole-wheat elbow macaroni
1/4 cup light or regular mayonnaise 2 Tbsp plain yogurt or low-fat sour cream
1 tsp yellow mustard
- pinch 75 grams cheddar cheese, cut into small cubes dried oregano
2 thin slices honey or black forest ham, chopped
1 cup finely diced fresh vegetables, such as carrots, celery and bell pepper
6 snap or snow peas, thinly sliced on an angle
Cook the pasta in a large pot of lightly salted boiling water until just tender, about 8 minutes. While it cooks, combine the mayonnaise, yogurt or sour cream, mustard and oregano in a medium bowl. Drain the cooked macaroni well, cool in ice-cold water, drain well again and place in the bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and toss to combine.
Cover and refrigerate until ready to pack for lunch.
Eric Akis is the author of the bestselling Everyone Can Cook series of cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.